Employment Insurance review boards to be scrapped

The federal government is scrapping two review boards used by people appealing decisions made about their employment insurance.

74-member tribunal to replace 1,000 part-time board members

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley offered details on changes to the Employment Insurance system Thursday. The government's omnibus budget bill, which grants cabinet the power to make the EI changes, also scraps EI tribunals and replaces them with a smaller board. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The federal government is scrapping two review boards used by people appealing decisions made about their employment insurance, replacing them with a much smaller tribunal.

A new Social Security Tribunal will replace about 1,000 part-time members of the Employment Insurance Board of Referees and 32 umpires, the CBC's Alison Crawford reports. The tribunal will also hear appeals from Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security claimants.

The new tribunal will consist of 74 members. Half will hear EI disputes. It's expected to be in place by May 2013.

Under the current system, the members sit on three-person panels representing workers, employers and government. They hear appeals on complaints such as denied benefits within 30 days. Decisions usually follow within a week. People who don't like those rulings may appeal to an umpire.

University of Ottawa law professor Lucie Lamarche says the new measure, which comes on page 196 of the more than 400-page budget implementation bill, is "well-hidden." 

The current system, she says, is easy, non-judicial and free.

"There is this group of people constituting the board of referees that can look at the facts, that can redress administrative mistakes and it's a system that produces a chunk of administrative mistakes," Lamarche said.

Lamarche is also concerned that under the new system, applicants will have to hire lawyers. She says it appears that under the legislation, people will have to make more technical, legal arguments.

Losing accessible space for appeals

"We're losing a non-judicial space, easily accessible, quickly accessible and free where people can re-tell their story in a language that they understand."

Lamarche predicts more frustration leading to fewer appeals and fewer payouts.

A spokeswoman for Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley said the current system is confusing, costly, slow and inefficient. In an emailed statement, she said the new system will be faster and eliminate overlap.

But one member of a board of referees says he can't imagine how so few people would handle the 26,000 EI appeals heard last year alone.

"I see the impact as slowing the process down, not allowing claimants the due process of getting a fair and timely decision on their claims," said Dan Borthwick, who represents workers on the board of referees in London, Ont.

Business and labour groups say the new tribunal will lead to delays and a more formal process.

'Not so sure' system inefficient

Corinne Pohlman, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, disagrees that the current system isn't efficient.

The CFIB nominates people to represent employers on the board of referees.

"I'm not so sure that the old system was all that inefficient," Pohlman said.

"It allowed for more, I think, of an informal process at the local level that allowed people to feel like they were getting fairly heard by people in their community."

Pohlman says she can't think of any complaints about the board or referees or delays in decisions.

"We certainly aren't really sure where this idea is coming from. We certainly feel the EI board of referees was working well."

Liberal human resources and skills development critic Rodger Cuzner says he's deeply troubled by the decision to scrap the board.

"When the system already suffers from delays, it is unclear how 74 members based in Ottawa will be able to handle the caseload of all appeal tribunals, work currently done by over 1,000 regional experts across Canada," he said in a statement.

"These changes will further impede the appeals process and make it more complicated for Canadians to access their EI benefits. The government must reconsider this poorly-thought out change."

The budget implementation bill is being studied by the House of Commons finance committee. The government wants the bill to become law before Parliament takes its summer break at the end of June.